Toyota Prius review
Toyota got the jump on many of its rivals, having plugged away with the development of its Prius five-door family hatchback hybrid for years. It's now in its fourth generation, and whereas the competition is still struggling to smooth out many kinks, Toyota has nailed the brief with this latest Prius.
Even their styling is similar, dictated by the aerodynamics to help both cars cut through the air with maximum efficiency. They offer similar fuel economy, a comparable level of boot space and passenger room and are close on price – the major differences that might sway your buying decision stem from the cars’ gearboxes and the differing infotainment systems. On that latter point, the Hyundai is better.
Hyundai’s sister brand Kia offers a car with the same powertrain as the Ioniq Hybrid. Called the Kia Niro, this petrol-electric SUV adds another dimension. SUVs are the current trend and many buyers are looking for the image a crossover or 4x4 car brings – the Niro delivers this, but assuming that by looking at a Prius or its rivals efficiency is important to you, buying an SUV (even a hybrid one like the Niro) means you won’t get quite the same level of economy as a more conventional car like the Toyota.
If space is key, then think about the Ford Mondeo Hybrid. Fundamentally the Mondeo isn’t a brilliant car, but as a hybrid it offers masses of space and practicality without too many drawbacks, while Ford’s pricing means it’s still relatively affordable.
As you can’t plug the Prius in, battery recharging is determined by the car’s electronic brain. When you lift off the accelerator or brush the brake, the Prius’s motor works in reverse like most hybrids, plug-in or otherwise, to top up the battery pack.
There are two modes to determine just how this happens. In the gearbox’s D mode there’s a normal level of regenerative braking when you lift off, just like engine braking in a normal car. Select B mode and this increases so you slow down just a little bit more, topping up the battery more intensely. Of course, you can use the brake pedal to slow as well – the first stage of the pedal’s travel uses the motor in reverse to slow the car; if you need to brake harder it uses the discs and calipers to slow you safely.
This transition between regenerative and mechanical braking still isn’t the smoothest, but it’s better than in almost all of its rivals.
On the subject of the gearbox, it’s what’s called a Continuously Variable Transmission, otherwise known as a CVT. It’s basically an automatic with no gears. The gearbox keeps the engine’s revs at the optimum point for the level of performance you’re asking for with the accelerator pedal.
This means at full throttle the engine revs do soar quite high, which can impact refinement, but in all other conditions the programming of this latest CVT gearbox is much better, giving you a better connection to the car and lessening the ‘rubber band’ surge feeling you get when you put your foot down.
It’s helped by the boost from the electric motor. There’s not much electric only driving range – instead, consider the electric motor as an assistant to the petrol engine so it doesn’t have to work as hard, helping refinement. It gives you a good level of power low down so performance around town is good.
The ride, too, is refined – especially on smaller wheels. The Prius is based on the latest Toyota New Global Architecture platform, which is relatively light even with the battery pack. As a result the car can get away with a relatively soft setup. It means the Prius takes nasty bumps in its stride with deft control at lower speed. At higher speeds bumps do upset the chassis a little more, but the chassis setup is such that this is the most engaging Prius yet.
It’s surprisingly good to drive for a car focused almost entirely on economy. The steering is light and lacks feel, but otherwise the body control is good and the effortless 121bhp 1.8-litre petrol-electric setup delivers a strong level of acceleration.
It’s also massively practical, thanks to its 343-litre boot – this matches most family hatchbacks, which is good when you consider the Prius also has to accommodate a battery pack within its chassis.
This is located partly under the rear seat, but there’s lots of room in the back (it’s no surprise you see many as minicabs in big cities), while the lack of a conventional transmission tunnel means it’s spacious in the front.
There are plenty of trim levels to choose from depending on your budget. The range starts with the Active model, which gets a respectable kit, which includes a seven-inch touchscreen, autonomous braking with pedestrian detection, automatic LED headlights and a reversing camera. This runs right up to the top-spec Excel trim, which comes loaded with everything.
The price span between entry-level and top-spec is around £4,000, but we’d go for Business Edition Plus trim as this gets sat-nav as standard. As CarPlay and Android Auto aren’t available (one of the Toyota infotainment system’s big failings) built-in nav is worthwhile.
If it’s a non-plug-in hybrid car you’re after and practicality and efficiency are key, then we’d definitely recommend a Prius ahead of all its rivals.
For a more detailed look at the Toyota Prius, read on for the rest of our in-depth review